Légua Cannes Review – A Slow and Sincere Meditation on Ordinary Lives

Directors Filipa Reis and João Miller Guerra Portuguese drama Légua sits comfortably in the slow cinema canon. It is a meditative film that combines daily ritual, tradition, and generational shifts all captured by Vasco Viana’s observational style camerawork. Occasionally the film shifts into confected symbolism but on the whole retains a grounded approach to the lives of three women in different stages of their lives who come together in a large manor house in Northern Portugal.

Ana (Carla Maciel) is a woman in her late forties. She and her husband are both working class and hoping that the lives of their children can be better than their own. Ana is lively and self-possessed. In an early scene we see her dancing to a pop tune and then have passionate sex with her husband. Their hometown of Légua is providing fewer opportunities and the shift of younger generations for city life has meant that Ana’s husband must move to France for construction work. He wants Ana to accompany him, but she has a duty elsewhere she must attend to first.

Ana’s job is as a caretaker for a manor house which is owned by wealthy and absent people. It is their summer residence, but they never come. Nevertheless. Ana and her finicky superior and friend, Emília (Fátima Soares) keep the house in order in case one day they do arrive. For the owners of the manor, it is just a house, for Emília it is not just a space where she makes her living, it is her home. Now at an advanced age she is suffering from an illness which she refuses to get treatment for or move into care accommodation. Ana takes on the role of her carer, much to her young daughter, Mónica’s (Vitória Nogueira da Silva) disgust. Why would Ana care for Emília? In Mónica’s mind the woman is bossy and mean. A statement that elicits a firm rebuke from Ana. Ana, who is living mostly in Porto and studying engineering can’t imagine herself old. She is yet to reach a point where she understands youth is temporary. She has her girlfriend Sofia (Sara Machado) and the possibility of any kind of life she chooses. Mónica isn’t deliberately cruel, she’s just only at the beginning of her journey.

Ana is at the midpoint. She, like many women, is in the situation where she has cared for children and is now caring for the elderly. Her children are mostly gone from the nest which meant she could start somewhere else with her husband, but she feels a loyalty to Emília who helped raise her children.

In terms of dramatic stakes there is little to be found in Légua, the directors are asking the audience to watch the everyday life of people who live in a drab routine. Anyone who has cared for an elderly person at the end of their life will recognise how small the world becomes. The simplest tasks are draining. The life slowly escapes for the carer and the person being cared for. Ana is a woman who is alive, naturally vivacious and energetic, but in caring for Emília she almost becomes a ghost haunting the manor that only she and Emília have an attachment to.

Under the surface of the film is a simmering rage. Filipa Reis and Joao Miller Guerra show how easily discarded Emília is by the couple whose house she has cared for over many years. A priest arrives, makes a mess that Ana is left to clean up and tells Ana that Emília is “one of the family” then disappears leaving Ana to shoulder caring for Emília alone. Before Emília has passed away a real estate agent comes as the owners have apparently decided to sell the house. For the rich and privileged the working class remain disposable. For the young death is so distant that it can’t be understood. Somewhere in these intersections Ana lives and tries to bring empathy and grace.

Légua is glacial in its pacing but deliberately so. No shot is wasted and the metaphor of the manor as the changing face of Portugal is easily read, so too the gaps between generations. Sometimes Filipa Reis and João Miller Guerra opt for a more abstract approach to the ideas which doesn’t quite gel with the realism of the film. Audiences attuned to their thesis already understand what is happening and the more fantastic elements are not needed.

Légua will try the patience of some viewers, watching the everyday minutiae of a woman caring for another who is disappearing into her eventual death is not for everyone. The reality of care is that it is wearying, it is depressing, but it is done with love. Légua asks the audience to interpret that love in the gestures Ana makes. They are small, such as peeling an orange, or they are larger, such as bathing and changing a woman whose frailty makes her a husk of once quite imperious self. Ana honours Emília with her gentleness – we hope that someone will be there for us when the time comes. Légua is a melancholy film, but it is a film about life as it is lived by so many. The ordinary world is also the infinite world and Légua reminds us that we are living in both simultaneously.

Director: João Miller Guerra, Filipa Reis

Cast: Carla Maciel, Sara Machado, Fátima Soares

Writers: José Filipe Costa, João Miller Guerra, Sara Morais

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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